Breakdown in civility

An ugly response to Chico’s not-so-pretty homeless issue

Not everyone is adjusting well to the metropolitan problems occurring here. I get it. Chico used to be a small town with little traffic and crime. It was idyllic. In many ways it still is. Try driving down The Esplanade this week. The picturesque fall scenery is right out of a quaint-town-USA calendar.

But not everything is so pretty.

And what’s getting noticed most lately is the blight in downtown. And I’m not talking about a building or two in disrepair. I’m talking about the perception of human blight. I’m talking about the transient and homeless folks who spend much of their day in the downtown core—just like what is found in bigger cities.

Business owners in the region think these people are driving away potential customers. I’ve heard from several people who won’t venture into downtown much anymore. Some people are genuinely afraid of the transient population. Others just don’t want to be confronted with homelessness. That’s because it’s unattractive.

What’s also ugly is the behavior some of our community members have displayed during public discussions related to homelessness and transiency. Tuesday evening’s City Council meeting—a gathering during which the panel voted in favor of the so-called civil-sidewalks ordinance—was a prime example. Despite repeated calls for civility, there were a number of rude outbursts by people on both sides. In fact, a fight nearly broke out directly in front of me.

Last month’s special study session on “downtown issues” also had undertones of hostility. The gathering was attended by an estimated 300 citizens, and all sorts of ideas were bandied about to mitigate the issues—loitering, trespassing, aggressive panhandling and camping—stemming from vagrancy. One of the ideas was to create a community day center—a place for people to go. But that idea went nowhere fast.

Instead, at that meeting, Councilman Sean Morgan went straight for the low-hanging fruit by bringing back the civil-sidewalks (aka sit/lie) law. That came about despite it becoming clear that the ordinance doesn’t apply to the lawns at City Plaza or outside of City Hall—popular lounging spots. Councilman Randall Stone and District Attorney Mike Ramsey both made flippant comments about turning the sprinklers on as deterrents. Not funny.

Also disturbing was the tone of the calls to stop feeding the homeless at the plaza. The way some people talked, it sounded like they were equating the needy to nuisance animals, rather than human beings.

What the civil-sidewalks ordinance likely will succeed in doing is pushing these folks to those grassy regions in downtown or into nearby neighborhoods. In other words, the new law is nowhere near to being an overarching solution to downtown vagrancy.

Mayor Scott Gruendl mentioned that he was going to form an ad-hoc committee that will provide an opportunity for stakeholders on both sides to come up with other ideas. Hopefully, by that time, good manners and compassion will prevail. As Gruendl pointed out, an overall sense of negativity has overshadowed many of the positive things happening around town.